Relief of Distress: SASSA fails the poor when it count

Albert Fritz, MPP

Western Cape Minister of Social Development

Note: The following speech was delivered in the Western Cape Provincial Parliament by Minister Albert Fritz on Thursday 28 August 2014, during a House Debate on “support for the destitute and poor through the programme called Social Relief of Distress”.

Honourable Speaker,

Honourable Members,

Ladies and gentlemen,

Madame Speaker, one of the often repeated mantras of the ANC is the accusation that this DA-led Provincial Government doesn’t care about the wellbeing of the poorest of the poor in this Province. I say it’s a mantra because the ANC trots out these falsehoods despite us being able to provide hard evidence and facts to the contrary.

The Department of Social Development does a sterling job in providing assistance to residents of the province during times of emergency, disaster, and to those citizens whose social situation results in them suffering undue hardship.

In this regard Madame Speaker, our duty to the people of the Western Cape is unflinching.

Let me point out the various programmes we have in place to assist the poorest of the poor.

The Department’s Social Relief Sub-programme provides temporary financial and material assistance to persons who are in dire need for their families and themselves.

The Social Relief of Distress (SRD) programme provides temporary and practical assistance to individuals and their families. We do this Speaker because we know that people struggle to survive in situations of poverty and no amount of slogans and political grandstanding is necessary for us to come to their assistance. We do not ask for party membership cards first and we do not focus on areas and communities filled with party loyalists. We assist everybody in need, and do not use this programme as a vote-catching gimmick during elections!

I say this speaker because our efforts in this regard are guided by law, specifically the Social Assistance Act (Act No. 13 0f 2004). This Act spells out the criteria with which individuals must comply in order to be considered for the grant. It is important to note that the social relief programme also makes provision for those who have been affected by a disaster, as defined in the Disaster Management Act (Act No. 57 of 2002). I want to point out that nowhere in the Act does it require those in need to display party -political loyalties and membership cards to qualify!

But Madame Speaker, these grants are currently administered by the South African Social Security Agency (SASSA). My Departments assists SASSA by assessing households, and referring them to SASSA for these social relief grants and benefits.

We follow this route because SASSA falls under the National Department of Social Development and as a provincial government we have no control over the decisions made by SASSA.

But while that is the case Speaker we often have to face the brunt of community anger and frustration because of the poor way SASSA carries out their mandate.

Speaker, when we refer to Social Relief, we are effectively speaking about two specific components;

1.            Disaster Response – in which the Department has played the role of first responder, the assessor of need, and referrer to SASSA for benefits administration.

 

2.            Undue Hardship – under which the Department’s Social Workers, during their routine case management, can identify people who may be eligible for the Undue Hardship Grant, and refer them to SASSA for a formal application and means test.

Given the onerous administrative burden this can impose, and to improve efficiency and the speed of referrals, the department formulated a formal Social Relief of Distress business plan with respect to the management of our Undue Hardship Targets during the previous financial year. I’m pleased to say that this has begun to yield encouraging results.

Our efforts saw 2907 households, calculated as having a minimum of four occupants, receiving assistance. This is approximately 11 628 people who received help to stave-off the difficulties that come with grinding poverty.

However this result is very much dependent on SASSA displaying an equal level of efficiency on their side.

This brings me to the point I made earlier about my department having to deal with community and beneficiary anger because of SASSA’s poor record of delivery.

Speaker, if we want real examples of government letting down the poor we have to look no further than SASSA. My office has two staff members that are assigned on a virtually full time basis to deal with citizen queries and complaints about SASSA, this despite my having no executive or political authority over SASSA.

What I can say is that if I did, I can assure my political opponents on the other side of the House that SASSA would perform much better than what it currently does!

On SASSA Inefficiency

Speaker, as I explained earlier, the Social Relief arena is made up of two components; Disaster Response and Undue Hardship. On both counts, and in other areas of SASSA’s grant administration responsibility, they often have displayed staggering inefficiency, apathy and political bias.

Furthermore, apart from the very slow rate at which SASSA has responded to the stationing of disaster teams at all of their local offices, by far the greatest concern is the terrible experiences of many of our residents regarding SASSA’s grant administration. Speaker, this is a form of abuse because often the people who suffer the most from SASSA’s dismal track record are the elderly.

Whether it is their administration of the Undue Hardship Grant after our Department Social Workers have referred people to them, or the increasing cases of pensioners finding their grant funds missing, SASSA just isn’t pulling their weight.

Speaker, my office is still getting calls, letters and even walk-in visitors who, out of sheer desperation and frustration, turn to the Western Cape Government for assistance with the lack of services on the part of SASSA.

In the last 6 months alone my office has dealt with a total of 179 cases of complaints against SASSA. Many of these complaints involve the unauthorized and illegal deductions of money from social grants.

I have engaged with scores of grant recipients in various communities, and examples of the complaints are the following:

•             Electricity deductions for prepaid meters that do not belong to the grant recipient;

•             Multiple airtime deductions – in some cases the person does not even possess a mobile phone- and in many cases the entire grant is swallowed by these deductions. When this travesty was brought to the attention of SASSA they said that they had been aware of this for many months but couldn’t do anything about it because it was fraudulent schemes run by unknown syndicates. Speaker, many of these syndicates can only do their dirty work with the active collaboration and assistance of SASSA staff- but yet SASSA says they are “powerless” to act!

•             Funds not loaded onto the new card on the day that grants are paid

•             Grants suspended without an explanation

Speaker, after allowing the situation to run out of control, SASSA had to act when the problem of unlawful deductions became so massive that it could no longer be ignored!

SASSA then established a special call centre where grant recipients could report their cases, with SASSA promising to have such illegal deductions reversed within 24 hours. However as you may have guessed Speaker, this does not happen. My office has cases where more than a month has elapsed and where such deductions have still not been reversed.

These cases have only been dealt with because my office puts pressure on SASSA to address it!

Let me also say that the so-called toll-free number for complaints is a joke. I have personally called this number and struggled to get through for more than 45 minutes. When I eventually got through I spoke to a rude and totally unprofessional SASSA staff member who proceeded to shout and hurl abuse at me, only to completely change her attitude when I identified myself.

Given this Speaker, I dread to think what the experience of our people are on a daily basis when they call this number and have to speak to such rude and unhelpful SASSA staffers!

Speaker, this totally unacceptable, and I want to say that as Minister I refuse to tolerate any excuses, especially when the poor service from SASSA is punishing poor people, more-so the elderly.

On dubious SASSA politicization

Speaker, the failure of SASSA to adequately render support to the destitute and poor residents of this province is compounded by the unethical conduct, and shameless politicization of their services which we have seen recently.

Need I remind the house that during the recent election period my office was inundated by complaints of SASSA’s resources being used as an electioneering freebie by the country’s ruling party?

I also am aware of situations where the SRD grants process is being manipulated to bolster support for local ANC councilors in the run up to the local government elections in 2016. In the end, such politicization hurts the poor, as crooked cadres play God with grants, picking society’s winners and losers. What a shame!

Speaker, as a Minister of a Department that works tirelessly to assist the poor, vulnerable and destitute I give this commitment that we will not allow SASSA to be continually used as a pawn in the hands of the ANC. Enough truly is enough!

Conclusion

We will meticulously monitor, document, report and raise in this House, and through other means, all instances of SASSA non-delivery.

We will also continue to ensure that we hold SASSA accountable.

I thank you.